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Whatever It Takes

Let me Explain: Lisa Suatoni suits up to testify before Congress on oceans.
On daytime TV, in film, and on Capitol Hill, scientist Lisa Suatoni opens people's eyes to the plight of the seas

Lisa Suatoni has always taken her passions seriously. As a child growing up in western Pennsylvania, she was devoted to competitive gymnastics, juggling her schoolwork with a demanding practice schedule. That is, until the day her father sent her to scuba diving camp when she was in high school. Gymnastics quickly took a backseat to her newfound passion for the ocean, and when she headed off to college, it was to study biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Several decades have passed since Suatoni had her epiphany, and her fascination with the oceans remains undiminished. Armed now with a master's degree in environmental science and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale, Suatoni serves a dual purpose as an NRDC scientist: she analyzes and translates technical studies for the organization's policy and advocacy teams, and she finds new ways to inspire public concern about the oceans’ increasingly grim prospects.

Suatoni is quick to point out that we have done a tragically thorough job of wiping out most of the large fish in the sea: between 75 percent and 90 percent of all tuna, sailfish, swordfish, and cod are now gone. But whereas we tend to notice this kind of thing on land -- say, on an African savanna that is noticeably devoid of lions and giraffes -- most of us don't notice when there are fewer billfish swimming around. More troubling still is the invisible threat that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide pose to the sea. We worry about how global warming will affect humans and animals on land with little regard for what's happening in the oceans, where carbon pollution does more than make things hotter -- it also makes seawater more acidic. When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater it creates carbonic acid, which in turn dissolves the carbonate shells of things like shrimp (which people eat) and of creatures that form the basis for the entire web of ocean life, such as krill (which whales eat) and phytoplankton (which krill eat).

"We are so terrestrially biased," Suatoni says. "Nearly every bit of land goes through zoning, but there is no comprehensive planning for oceans. We need to figure out what we have, first of all, and we need to manage those resources in a way that the ecosystem can handle."

Suatoni spent more than a year reviewing studies of commercial fish populations in U.S. waters and the effect that the fishing industry has on their health and survival. In 2006, with the help of Suatoni's scientific analyses, NRDC and its partners were finally able to close loopholes in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that allowed fishermen operating in U.S. waters to catch more fish than many populations could sustain. She is now working with NRDC's oceans team to create what advocates call a spatial plan for the sea, which would govern use of the oceans much as land use is regulated.

Last year, in her role as public educator, Suatoni was invited to speak to executives at Warner Brothers about the effect of global warming and acidification on the world's oceans. She showed a series of animations and graphics to illustrate the invisible threats to the ocean's chemical balance and marine life. She soon found herself on television with Ellen DeGeneres, elbow-deep in a bowl of water, handling a sea cucumber, while explaining to Ellen and her audience how overfishing is devastating the oceans. The segment was as funny as it was serious, and communicated a crucial message to millions of viewers.

Suatoni's experience on Ellen reinforced her belief that people need to be able to see clearly the effects of our actions on the oceans. Words simply cannot convey the damage we're doing, particularly as it relates to ocean acidification. (For more on acidification, see "A Sea Less Hospitable to Life," this issue.)

"The nature of the problem is chemical," Suatoni says. "The relevant scientific terms -- 'pH' and 'carbonate saturation states' -- seem to trigger chemistry daze. I thought we could circumvent this problem by using simple animations to illustrate the chemical processes."

She went to NRDC's film team with the idea of making a movie, and they were sold. So were Howard and Michelle Hall, the cinematography team behind the IMAX films Deep Sea and Under the Sea, who agreed to contribute spectacular underwater footage to the project. The Discovery Channel liked the idea too and agreed to air the half-hour documentary that Suatoni inspired -- Acid Test -- on its Planet Green network in August. The film, which was supported by Warner Brothers and Universal Studios and funded through an Entertainment Industry Foundation grant, is now available on the Web at

"Lisa is passionate, articulate, and funny," says Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's ocean initiative. "Those traits make her very effective as a communicator, whether on national television or on Capitol Hill. And she's a true scientist. Combine those things, and her value to both NRDC and the oceans effort is priceless."

Related Tags: ocean acidification
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Atlanta-born, New York-based writer Adam Spangler puts his academic degrees in geology and journalism to good use, reporting on environmental topics for magazines such as Vanity Fair, National Geographic Adventure, OnEarth, Outside, Plenty, and the E... READ MORE >